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jueves, enero 12, 2006

Socialist software?

I have a ton of items I've been meaning to blog but no time to do it -- sorry! I'll try to get caught up this weekend. Lots going on with the Venezuelan labor movement.

In the meantime, here's a piece a friend sent me from Salon about the Venezuelan government's pending switch to open-source software. The article is "Free software, Big Oil and Venezuelan politics" by Andrew Leonard.

I'm no expert, but the idea behind open-source software is that, unlike proprietary software such as Microsoft Office, the source code underlying the software is open for anyone to inspect and modify. What that means is that anyone (well, anyone who knows how) can change the way the software works, fix bugs, add new capabilities, or write whole new programs that work with existing software. With proprietary software, some of those things you can't do at all, and the rest you can do only if you pay for expensive licenses.

Though it's often called "free software", the point isn't that using open-source software doesn't cost anything, but that you're free to use it as you wish - in Spanish, it's software libre, not software gratis. Or as free-software proponents say, "free as in speech, not free as in beer." Here's a good conceptual description.

So why is Venezuela making the switch? Part of the impetus, suggests Leonard, may have been the role that proprietary Microsoft software played in enabling the opposition to shut down the national oil company PDVSA in Dec. 2002. But Chavez has deeper reasons to favor open source:

Last month, Jeff Zucker, a free software advocate who has visited Venezuela several times, published an article about Venezuela's move to open source software. (For some insight into the political passions incited by anything to do with Venezuela, check out the comments appended to Zucker's story.)

I asked Zucker if there was any truth to an assertion I had seen in several places that the SAIC "sabotage" had motivated the Chavez government to push for open source. Zucker just so happens to be writing an article on this very topic. Here's what he told me:

"Yes SAIC [a US-based contractor for PDVSA] and/or INTESA [SAIC's joint venture in VZ] blocked the passwords during the walkout and did a number of other kinds of IT sabotage. Yes, PDVSA was using Windows at the time. Yes the events of the walkout were indirectly related to the eventual adoption of the open-source software law. But I wouldn't put it as simply as saying that because proprietary software was involved in the sabotage that therefore Venezuela moved to open source. Certainly the events made many in Venezuela think about the issues of computer security and that is one of the motivations of the law. But the reasons behind the open-source law are also related to the wider social and economic policies of the Chavez government -- developing a national software industry as a counter to neoliberal policies of privatization and globalization; developing computer mechanisms to support greater citizen-participation in governance and greater transparency of public agencies; broadening the base of local software developers to avoid the kind of one-source-of-IT-expertise situation that allowed the PDVSA sabotage; building bridges between the oil industry and the rest of Venezuelan society."

I find it very interesting that many of the computer/tech concepts that have been developing more or less from the grassroots -- open source, wikis, file sharing, etc. -- run entirely counter to the supposed Western ideal of individualistic, dog-eat-dog, ultracompetitive capitalism. Indeed, one might even call them (gasp!) socialist.

Hmm, perhaps when people get the chance to interact in new ways, and without billions of dollars of PR telling them what to think, it turns out those "ideals" aren't as deeply ingrained after all? And that we can do better without them?

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